Free Pixel

discovering games as expressive media

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    FreePixel looks at video games as part of the moving image culture. Games are not movies. But games use moving image tradition in their presentation. That is why FreePixel offers a critical look at games and their expressive qualities that grow from the use of the moving image.


    [September 1st, 2011]

    Rules of Engagement

    Posted by Michael

    It is pretty clear that machinima is not interactive. It is not a game, one cannot achieve a high score or solve the problem, but receives a prefabricated performance in one way or the other. This rings true for audiences streaming their daily dose of gameplay videos on YouTube and a large part of followers of machinima. The closer one gets to the production side, the more the whole enterprise turns into an highly interactive theatrical and cinematic event. One that touches on a whole lot of live performance issues – for example on digital puppetry (and some weeks ago Sanjeev Nayak, one of my students just finished his work on a nice new version of digital puppetry using cell phones). But in-between are the murky waters of cutscenes and QTEs …. and things get muddy.

    In those muddy waters there are exciting versions – and some that are plain off. And here enters Heavy Rain. It took some time for me to finally get to this title. Heavy Rain was one of those games everybody recommended me to play. But I got burnt by Fahrenheit. Why? Because in Fahrenheit – and in those parts of Heavy Rain I have seen so far – the controls are actually countering the visuals. Very odd indeed.

    God of War’s QTEs were a kind of orchestrated button mashing, but one that seemed to be rhythmic and at times satisfyingly appropriate in its combination of mastering a move and getting the smooth scene playing out in perfection. The same rings true for some sequences in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Indeed, even before QTEs there were some games that developed a kind of art around the use of cutscenes – sometimes too much is too much, but sometimes even the exuberant behemoths get it beautifully right (see Final Fantasy VII’s Aeris’ Death sequence).

    And probably my all time favorite: the way Psychomantis “moves” your Playstation controller using his psychic powers. That is a cutscene well worth “watching.” It literally uses the interface as a reversed puppet control device into my player’s physical world. It positions me in an exciting opposition to a virtual maniac with the help of the rumble pack.

    But, oh my, Heavy Rain. The fact, that the beginning tries to draw one into the game by using everyday situations (tying a tie, changing a diaper) might at first sound plain boring but on second thought, it makes some sense. These activities allow us to get closer to the characters. At times this is way too enforced. The reason I threw the controller in the corner of the room in Fahrenheit was that I had to stumble through a cellar room while fighting some pseudo-inflicted claustrophobia – I do not have claustrophobia and did not emphasize at all with the condition during that ordeal. At other times, it is almost touching. The opening sequence in Heavy Rain manages to create an effective feeling of imminent danger and I can do nothing against the loss of my son because I am stuck paying for some balloons in a shopping mall and trapped by the people around me – now I can emphasize.

    The interactions as such might be not perfect, but this critique is not directed against them, nor against the story or the rest of the game elements. What really sucks is the control scheme. Admittedly, I have not beaten the game – maybe there is some magic point along this experience when things fall into place. But after a handful of hours I still fail to make any coherent connection between my twiggeling of some joysticks and the behavior of my characters, apart from the most basic moves (like a “look at” command). Every interaction seems to establish a new rule and specific animation controls are simply too variable to be transferable.

    The characters in Heavy Rain pretend to be puppets but they are Dance Dance Revolution arrows and bridging that gap gives my attempts to fill in the cognitive holes a hard time. It gives you the headaches. I want them to be puppets and it seems as if they would really like to connect to me, but the controls work against us. Maybe the Move controllers make magically sense of it all? But the way it stands, I fully expect that at some point in the near future I will – once again – give up on a Quantic Dream title only because the QTEs are counterproductive.

    In some way, this still proves the point of puppetry and embodiment in video games (one that we have been working on for a while now). Too bad that it is a proof of insufficiency.

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